There’s a new, Christmas issue of Shiny New Books out today! I have written something for it. Here is a hint…
The latest edition of Shiny New Books is up – brilliant as ever – and guess what lucky Helen was asked to review? (There is a clue in this post.)
Fellow readalongers, how are you faring with Little, Big? How far are you? Are you enjoying it?
I have decided to write a post for each of the six books which form the novel. Here are my thoughts on the first...
On a certain day in June, 19—, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited. His name was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one of the conditions placed on him coming there at all.
As I read the opening lines, I was reminded of my struggle the first time I encountered this novel: what is going on? Where and when are we? How do I read this? This first paragraph shows us a pattern that is repeated as we continue through the book: it sets forth to destabilise, to give us information and yet somehow render it meaningless. For instance, when is this story taking place? ‘On a certain day in June’ is precise and helpful; ‘19—’ is not, not really. It plays on the old literary convention of using a dash to disguise a name, date or place, and hides as much as it tells. Then we’re told that Smoky ‘didn’t ride’, which implies to me that people are still frequently travelling on horseback, yet as we read further we find this is a world of telephones and computers and cars and motorways. (Or have I misunderstood ‘ride’ in this context? )
Smoky is an odd name for a hero; we soon learn it’s not his real name but it’s the only one we’re given. He is called Smoky because he’s so anonymous, like all the Barnables, although from his mother (who deserted him as a child) he has inherited ‘a streak of [her] concreteness: an actual streak it seemed to those who knew him, a streak of presence surrounded by a dim glow of absence’. This streak perhaps suggests possibility. He’s leaving a decaying, unnamed City for a place, Edgewood, which isn’t marked on the map he has, yet is using to guide him. And he is travelling under ‘conditions’ which seem pretty arbitrary: he must walk, he must not buy food and he must beg or find places to sleep, not pay for them. Arbitrary, but magical, and dictated by ‘the cards’, the tarot that Great Aunt Cloud reads and reads.
Other characters have odd names too, some of which – Alice and Timmie Willie, Ariel and Auberon – allude to literary figures, others of which are very suggestive – Lionel Mouse, Violet Bramble, Nora Cloud (and perhaps they are literary figures I just don’t recognise?). Looking at a family tree at the front of the book, I think that I can see an urban ‘side’ – Mouses and the Townses – and a rural one – Drinkwaters, Woods, Dales.
While Smoky is walking towards, he hopes, Edgewood, we learn in a series of flashbacks about his early life and his brief meetings with the girl who will become his fiancée, Daily Alice Drinkwater. On one occasion, she tells him how she first knew she would marry him, when she stepped inside a rainbow and heard her dog speak his name. Smoky is sceptical:
‘A fairy tale,’ he said.
‘I guess,’ she said sleepily. [...]
He knew he would have to believe in order to go where she had been; knew that, if he believed, he could go there even if it didn’t exist, if it was make-believe. [...] He searched himself for that old will, long in disuse. If she went there, ever, he didn’t want to be left behind; wanted never to be farther from her than this.
This passage seems to be saying that a story, a fairy tale, is not just a series of sounds or words, it is an actual, physical place. And conversely, that physical space is not what you think it is.
‘See, it’s a house all fronts. It was built to be a sample. My great-grandfather [...] He built this house to be a sample, so people could come and look at it, from any side, and choose which kind of house they wanted; that’s why the inside is so crazy. It’s so many houses, sort of put inside each other or across each other, with their fronts sticking out.’
[...] He looked where she pointed, along the back front. It was a severe, classical facade softened by ivy, its gray stone stained as though by dark tears; tall, arched windows; symmetrical detail he recognized as the classical Orders; rustications, columns, plinths. Someone was looking out one tall window with an air of melancholy. ‘Now come on.’ She [...] led him by the hand along that front, and as they passed, it seemed to fold like scenery; what had looked flat became out-thrust; what stuck out folded in; pillars turned pilasters and disappeared. Like one of those ripply pictures children play with, where a face turns from grim to grin as you move it, the back front altered, and when they reached the opposite wall and turned to look back, the house had become cheerful and mock-Tudor, with deep curling eaves and clustered chimneys like comic hats. One of the broad casement windows (a stained piece or two glittered among the leaded panes) opened on the second floor, and Sophie looked out, waving.
I try to imagine exactly how that all works, and I can’t. The house doesn’t seem to be governed by the physical laws which shape ordinary houses. The house is like the story Alice told, it’s a space but a different sort of space. Crowley is constantly disorienting us, showing us the strangeness, asking us to open our minds to new possibilities. He writes about insubstantial heroes, impossible houses, lives dominated by tarot, rainbows you can step inside. And we haven’t even reached the first Elf yet. (We have, however, encountered a talking fish.) How do we read this? We are constantly being wrongfooted, offered a different logic. And yet, there is just enough play on the familiar to keep us from bewilderment. And lovely writing. If a story is a place, this is a place where you want to stay. Thank goodness it’s a long book! I have hours of pleasure ahead.
If you are participating in the readalong and have posted, please put a link in the comments so we can read your thoughts too!
(István Orosz is a Hungarian artist who is known for his ‘impossible objects’ and anamorphoses, pictures which appear distorted until you look at them from a particular angle or through a special mirror. All the pictures in this post are by him: The Pergola, The Well (1998) and an untitled work of 1989 from his Hungarian Wikipedia page. His website is here.)
(‘Sipping their Cups of Dew’, ‘Acheta Domestica’, Episodes of Insect Life, Vol. II (London: Reeve and Benham, 1850); taken from Melanie Keene, Science in Wonderland: The Scientific Fairy Tales of Victorian Britain (Oxford: OUP, 2015))
I love holidays. I love not working and lounging about in the sunshine and reading lots and not getting dressed until lunchtime and playing with my daughter. I have never understood people who say they’d still work if they won the Lottery. I wouldn’t! I remember on the teacher-training course I followed, all the trainers said sternly that if you wanted to be a teacher because of the lovely long holidays, you Wouldn’t Last Long in teaching. ‘Bother’, thought I, but three years down the line I’m still hanging in there and yes, enjoying the holidays; perhaps there are exceptions to that rule.
So, just in case you aren’t a teacher or don’t have a child at a Belgian school, I should tell you that the last two weeks have been Easter holidays and thus I have not really strayed near the computer. I am sure that you all know by now that the latest wallet-worrying edition of Shiny New Books is out and as usual stuffed to the gills with good things.
I have two reviews in there this time. The first is a new collection of Victorian fairy tales edited by Michael Newton. This was terrific fun and highly recommended: there are other similar collections but this one contains stories not in print anywhere else and a really good introduction by Newton. The other is Science in Wonderland, by Melanie Keene, an exploration of what happens when nineteenth-century enthusiasm for science meets fairy tales and produces some truly bizarre educational texts for children. The dreadful photograph at the beginning of this post is from there (taken by me, as are all the pictures in this post).
Melanie Keene mentions an album by two Victorian teenagers, Madalene and Louisa Pashley, pages from which were published in 1980. The album sounded so appealing I had to track down a copy, of course not much effort with the internet. Madalene and Louisa were enthusiastic entomologists, and their album, lavishly illustrated with their watercolours, outlines some of their adventures (bizarrely written in the personae of middle-aged spinsters). The sisters often shrink to insect size. Their adventures include ‘DARING NIGHT EXPEDITIONS’, lassoing glow worms, being outwitted by a grasshopper and capturing a dragonfly, all very dramatic. However, their lives are complicated by a succession of irritating governesses (‘none of them was interested in beetles and all of them persisted in setting us SUMS’), their ‘sour’ older sister Georgie whose mere presence causes it to rain, a staid drawing master and their admiral Papa, whose duties consist of ‘discussing repairs to ships of the line, and making arrangements for DINNER PARTIES and croquet matches’. Were I not a teacher with lots of holidays, I think I’d be an admiral, that’s a job I could manage. It all ends happily: ‘After that Papa decided that we were too old for governesses and too idle for drawing masters so we were able to entomologise as much as we liked with no one to bother us.’
(The book is The Adventures of Madalene and Louisa: Pages from the Album of L. and M.S. Pasley, Victorian Entomologists, introduced by Tim Jeal, London: William Collins, 1980, should you be interested.)
The young ladies who attend Miss Primrose Crabapple’s finishing school have a new teacher:
Their new dancing-master was a tall, red-haired youth, with a white pointed face and very bright eyes. Miss Primrose, who always implied [to her pupils] that it was at great personal inconvenience and from purely philanthropic motives that their teachers gave them their lessons, introduced him as ‘Professor Wisp, who had very kindly consented to teach them dancing,’ and the young man made his new pupils a low bow, and turning to Miss Primrose, he said, ‘I’ve got you a fiddler, ma’am. Oh, a rare fiddler! It’s your needlework that has brought him. He’s a weaver by trade, and he dearly loves pictures in silk. And he can give you some pretty patterns to work from – can’t you Portunus?’ and he clapped his hands twice.
Whereupon, ‘like a bat dropped from the rafters,’ as Prunella, with an inexplicable shudder, whispered to Moonlove, a queer wizened old man with eyes as bright as Professor Wisp’s, all mopping and mowing, with a fiddle and bow under his arm, sprang suddenly out of the shadows.
‘Young ladies!’ cried Professor Wisp, gleefully, ‘this is Master Portunus, fiddler to is Majesty the Emperor of the Moon, jester-in-chief to the Lord of Ghosts and Shadows ... though his jests are apt to be silent ones. And he has come a long long way young ladies, to set your feet a dancing. Ho, ho, hoh!’
Need I add that Professor Wisp’s dancing lessons do not end happily? For characters in Lud-in-the-Mist suffer from the same inability as those in a Dickens novel, the inability to notice that a person’s name reflects his personality. ‘Professor Wisp’, for instance, hardly inspires confidence, does it? I wouldn’t entrust my daughter to him...
(Cover of the US first edition of Lud-in-the-Mist, published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1927, found here; the novel has not been well served by its cover designers but this one is pretty)
Lud-in-the-Mist, published in 1926, is, in the author’s own words, ‘A Story of Smuggling, Kidnapping and Adventures on the Borders of Fairyland’. If you like classifying novels, this is a tricky one: a fantasy, a comedy (in the older sense) perhaps, a thriller, an allegory, related in jewel-like prose and a wry tone. The setting is Dorimare, a small but prosperous land in what I took to be a sort of early nineteenth century. Lud-in-the-Mist is Dorimare’s capital, a busy port whose life is dominated by a successful and rather complacent mercantile class which for centuries has rejected ‘the tragic sense of life’ from any art or poetry in favour of pragmatism and common sense. Unfortunately for the good burghers, the western border of Dorimare is shared with Fairyland, a country representative of all they fear and despise. However, while even the word ‘fairy’ is taboo in Dorimare, fairy fruit is regularly smuggled in. The eating of fairy fruit, with its unnatural colours and addictive flavours, is strictly forbidden as it causes outbreaks of ‘madness, suicide, orgiastic dancing, and wild doings under the moon’ as well as philosophising and daydreaming. And yet people do consume the banned fairy fruit, traces of an older and more fanciful Dorimarite culture – when fairies were welcome – persist in oaths, proverbs and ancient art, and not everyone in Dorimare is quite as rational as they might appear to be.
One such man is the Mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, Nathaniel Chanticleer. Outwardly successful and all that Dorimare esteems, secretly he is prey to an unDorimarite terror of the unknown. When his son Ranulph starts behaving oddly, Chanticleer fears that he has eaten some fairy fruit and anxiously summons Dr Endymion Leer. Leer prescribes a restorative holiday for the boy at the Widow Gibberty’s farm (Widow Gibberty! Again, I wouldn’t entrust my child to someone called Widow Gibberty), some distance to the west of Lud. But strange things are afoot – visions, bleeding coffins, absconding young ladies. Defrocked – are mayors defrocked? Sacked? – as he is, after a bewigged clockmaker’s apprentice plants a stash of fairy fruit in his house, Chanticleer must solve an old murder and restore harmony to the nation.
(Photograph of Hope Mirrlees, undated; found here)
This brief outline might suggest that the fairy fruit is a metaphor for hallucinogenic drugs, and Lud-in-the-Mist has been interpreted by some as a pro-narcotics text. I find that metaphor too narrow and, even if you do not, both fairies and fruit are depicted in too complex a manner to act as a wholehearted endorsement for them. The fruit causes madness and suicide as well as dreaming and philosophy and Fairyland is the land of the dead. Instead, Mirrlees includes as an epigraph a quote from Jane Harrison, the classics scholar with whom she had a very close relationship, which suggests we might see fairy fruit as stimulating:
the impulses in life as yet immortalised, imperious longings, ecstasies, whether of love or art, or philosophy, magical voices called to a man from his man from his ‘Land of Hearts Desire, and to which if he hearken it may be that he will return no more [...]
Thus, while neither fairies nor Fairyland are idealised, they do represent an important dimension of human experience: the Dionysiac. And Euripides showed us the dire consequences of repressing that side of ourselves (but Lud-in-the-Mist is a happier and less brutal tale than The Bacchae). Officially Dorimare turns its back on all that, but in fact as a culture it hasn’t completely stifled its imaginative side: fairies have infiltrated it, fairy fruit is regularly brought into it, satisfying a craving which some Dorimarites feel, while the similarity of the names Chanticleer and Leer suggests that the two men are not so very different from each other after all.
Lud-in-the-Mist dramatises the healing of a sick society, but healing comes at the price of comfort. It requires an acceptance of the shadow side of life, of the pain and pleasure of love, and of the horror of death. Belatedly, Chanticleer discovers a powerful love for Ranulph, to save whom he will rise to heroic deeds. This self-sacrificing love, sharpened by a fear of loss, is in stark contrast to the affectionate tolerance which most Dorimarites consider to be love (and when their daughters dance away to Fairyland, nobody is bothered enough to rescue them). Mirrlees had, of course, lived through the First World War, a conflict which destroyed so many lives and left no one in Europe untouched. How does a society come to terms with that sort of loss? I cannot help thinking that this grief and fear lurks between the lines of Lud-in-the-Mist.
It is also a funny novel and just a bit bonkers. Ho ho hoh! I love it!
As I’m sure you already know, the latest Shiny New Books is online and packed with reviews and interviews and an Advent quiz. I’ve already forgotten that Christmas involves buying presents for other people and identified about twenty books I want for myself. I defy you to be more altruistic if you click through.
I have written two reviews this time. The first is of Marina Warner’s Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale. I didn’t actually write ‘perfect stocking-filler’, but... The second is The Portrait, the English translation of a powerful Dutch novel by Willem Jan Otten. Although short it wasn’t always an easy read, but it poses some interesting questions. And the narrator is a canvas.
(Illustration by Walter Crane from Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, Household Stories from the Collection of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Lucy Crane. London: Macmillan & Co., 1882; from here)
This is another of the better-known of the Grimms’ tales, and I do remember it quite well from my childhood. You can read it here, although it refers coyly to the fisherfolk’s home as a ‘filthy shack’ whereas Joyce Crick in the Oxford University Press edition translates it more robustly as a ‘piss-pot’. Mmm. No wonder the fisherman’s wife is a pushy opportunist. Who wouldn’t want to escape that?
In her endnotes Crick explains that a painter, Philipp Otto Runge, was the Grimms’ source for this story. His first version was in Pomeranian dialect but this was later replaced by another he had written in Hamburg dialect. He didn’t invent the story, there were quite a few variants in circulation including at least one in which it was the fisherman who was the demanding character rather than his wife. So it’s an interesting hybrid even before the Grimms receive it, a story which has been deliberately shaped by an educated man to retain the flavour of the ‘volk’ and its oral nature, even as it’s been changed into a written piece of literature for the more educated members of society.
(Luise Neupert, silhouette illustration in Märchenhafte Papierschnitte, Kassel : Brüder Grimm-Gesellschaft, 2002; found here)
This version is pleasing, despite the misogyny lurking behind the characterisation of the wife, because it is funny and elegant. The increasingly outrageous and improbable demands of the wife – to be king! emperor! pope! God! – are reflected by the state of the sea, which grows murkier, stormier, each time the fisherman returns with a fresh request. The obvious moral of the story is to beware of over-reaching, of being too greedy and discontented. Discontent feeds upon itself; the wife becomes more and more frenzied in her demands until at the end, when she’s declaring she wants to become God, she completely loses self-control:
Then she flew into a rage; her hair flew wildly round her head, she tore her stays and gave him a kick with her foot and screamed: ‘I won’t stand it and I won’t stand it any longer! Will you be off!’
But I think that responsibility for this lies with the fisherman as well as his wife. In the Grimms’ telling, it is clear that unlike his wife he has a moral sense and he understands that acceding to her demands is wrong. However, he is too weak to seriously oppose her and obeys her against his better judgement. Thus she grows into a monster. Did this have extra resonance when the Grimms were first assembling their collection, in a German kingdom occupied by the French under the emperor Napoleon? Certainly it lends itself to political interpretation: Crick writes that a version was printed in 1814 which turned it into an allegory of the fall of Napoleon.
An amusing element of this story is that the characters seem conscious that they are in a fairy tale. The fisherman’s response to the flounder is exactly the response one would expect of a reader of fairy tales:
Then the flounder spoke to him. ‘Listen to me, fisherman. Spare my life, I beg you. I’m not a real flounder. I am a prince under a spell. What good will it do you if you kill me? You wouldn’t enjoy eating me. Put me back in the water and let me go.’ ‘Well,’ said the man, ‘you don’t need to make such a fuss about it. I’d have let a talking flounder go anyway.’
And his wife knows the rules that we readers know: you help a magical character, you are rewarded:
‘Didn’t you make a wish for anything?’ said his wife. […] ‘Go back and call him. Tell him we want to have a little cottage. He’ll do that for sure. […] For heaven’s sake, […] you did catch him after all, and you did let him go. He’s sure to do it. Go down right now.’
Perhaps this shared consciousness of being characters in a story brings them a little closer to us, who are on the outside looking in.
And what about the enchanted flounder? We never know his story. I hope he either enjoys being a fish, or is freed from the spell…
(Illustration by Kay Nielsen in Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1925; found here)
What do you think of when you think of fairies? A dead ancestor? A household help? Something tiny in a sparkly pink skirt? Fairies have been all of these, and in this fascinating book Diane Purkiss traces their biography in British culture from their origins as child-eating demons right down to Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies and little girls’ fancy dresses.
‘Human nature’, writes Purkiss:
seems to abhor a blank space on a map. Where there are no human habitations, no towns, where villages dwindle into farms and farms into woods, mapping stops. Then the imagination rushes to fill the woods with something other than blank darkness: nymphs, satyrs, elves, gnomes, pixies, fairies.
But what exactly are fairies? To answer this, Purkiss advises us to look at what fairies do. Her conclusion is that:
A fairy is someone who appears at and governs one of the big crises of mortal life: birth, childhood and its transitions, adolescence, sexual awakening, pregnancy and childbirth, old age, death. She presides over the borders of our lives, the seams between one phase of life and another. […] She is a gatekeeper, and she guards the entrance to a new realm. Like all gatekeepers, she is Janus-faced, ambiguous: she has a lovely face, a face of promise, and a hideous face, a face of fear.
Broadly speaking, Purkiss’s thesis is that fairies are what we create to fill the dark places during times of transition, anxiety, uncertainty. They are identified with the Other: demons, ghosts, foreigners. And when people talk about fairies, it’s not necessarily because they believe in them but because they offer ways of speaking about the unspeakable.
The origins of fairies, Purkiss proposes, can be found in the ancient cultures of lands bordering the Mediterranean, to the nymphs, Lamiae and Gorgons of Greece, and even further back to Mesopotamian and Egyptian child-killing demons. These are the creatures of nightmare, the explanations for unnatural deaths. Many of them have died prematurely, or are infertile, and are compelled to visit their circumstances on others, slaying the young, sucking the life from babies even as they appear to suckle them. The fairies of mediaeval and early modern Europe continue to be associated with birth, sex and death, and prey on humans – handsome young men and babies especially. But they can offer occult knowledge or gold to those who dare to deal with them, and some fairies – hobs, brownies – will even clean your house if you leave out a dish of milk in payment. I’m still looking for those fairies.
Fairies provide ways of talking about and even justifying infanticide, incest, sexual deviance and sudden death. They also become associated with colonialism. Shakespeare and A Midsummer Night’s Dream get the blame in Purkiss’s eyes for the beginnings of the tiny, ‘cute’ fairy, whose apogee is in the Victorian era. The threat of the fairy dwindles with its size: it becomes possessable rather than possessing, an object to be purchased, consumed. While the scary fairy is more or less squashed by the Enlightenment, the pretty little fairy scampers around the stage in tights and spangles, popping out of trap-doors and flying on wires as theatres embrace new technologies. No longer a seductive revenant dressed in black, the fairy becomes childlike and innocent and Purkiss shows it as contributing to changing ideas about childhood during the nineteenth century. Fairies are linked to nationalism and war at the beginning of the twentieth century and thereafter lose any remaining cultural resonance for the majority of the population. Now that our planet is mapped, Purkiss argues, ‘Aliens are our fairies’.
As you can guess from this very crude outline, this book covers an enormous amount of ground and Diane Purkiss has done an admirable job in creating a clear, coherent ‘biography’ from masses and masses of information including a couple of thousand years of literature, court records including Scottish witch trials, newspapers, folkloric research and philosophy. Because of fairies’ association with the Other, their history becomes a history of attitudes to difference and objects of fear. It is also fun because, while I wouldn’t and couldn’t pick a fight with Purkiss over her scholarship, she is unafraid to reveal her biases and thus invite discussion of her interpretations. And that is an attitude I like, although her wit is often barbed. Cruelly she mocks teeny tiny sparkly fairies, the works of Marion Zimmer Bradley, middle-class mummies, Puck, the now-defunct chain of shops called ‘Past Times’, do-gooders, which is amusing if you’re not included in her scorn, perhaps less so if you are … And she doesn’t have much time for people who do actually believe in fairies. They might want to avoid reading this book.
My copy of Troublesome Things is second-hand. The book is still in print, but like its subject, since its beginnings it’s changed its name (a couple of times: At the Bottom of the Garden: A Dark History of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Nymphs and Other Troublesome Things seems to be its US title and Fairies and Fairy Stories: A History is its current British title) and its appearance: the original cover illustration of a detail of Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Fella’s Master Stroke has been updated to something pink and Flowery Fairyish which I rather think Purkiss must loathe…
Tags: at the bottom of the garden: a dark history of fairies hobgoblins nymphs and other troublesome things, diane purkiss, fairies and fairy stories: a history, henry fuseli, prince arthur and the fairy queen, troublesome things: a history of fairies and fairy stories
You all know the story of Hansel and Gretel, don’t you? But you can read it here, if you like. Because in fact, on rereading it, I found there were elements I hadn’t remembered. That their mother was a stepmother, and that she was the moving force behind the abandoning of the children. That both parents had taken the children into the woods, not just the father. That each time, Hansel had pretended he was looking back to see something on the roof of the house – his little white cat, his dove – to hide his dropping of the trail of white stones or crumbs. That the parents had tied a bough to a tree to make a tapping noise like the tapping of an axe on a trunk and convince the children that they were still nearby when in fact they had crept home and left them alone in the forest. That after Gretel had killed the witch, a white duck carried them safely over ‘a great stretch of water’. That the stepmother had died while the children were in the forest. That the story ends thus:
Then all their cares were at an end and they lived in sheer joy together. My story’s done. See a mouse run. And whoever catches it can make a great big furry hood from it. (Joyce Crick’s translation from the Oxford World’s Classics edition of the Selected Tales.)
Joyce Crick’s note to the story explains that this ending was added in the fifth edition (1843) of the tales, when Wilhelm Grimm revised ‘Hansel and Gretel’ to reflect a version written by August Stöber (in Elsässisches Volksbüchlein). Crick writes:
In phrase after phrase the story now offers more purchase for moral judgement than the laconic discretion of the version in the first edition did. The stepmother is made harsher, the father more plagued by conscience, Gretel more weepy, Hansel more confident.
The famine which drives the family to the brink of starvation, the explanations and motivations for the characters’ behaviour, the white duck, these were all elaborations on the original story. There is a comparison of the first and fifth editions here, so you can judge the extent of the changes for yourself.
The stepmother was, until the fourth edition (1840), the mother. Marina Warner argued, as far as I recall since I don’t have a copy of From the Beast to the Blonde here, that the Grimms systematically turned the ‘bad mothers’ of their tales into stepmothers: this reflects a social fact – stepmothers often were harsher to their stepchildren and, in a world where food and other resources might be scarce and survival a struggle, often did favour their own children – and an emotional one – mothers must be nurturing and kind, they may not hate or kill their offspring, it’s an idea we simply do not like to entertain, even now.
In the woods lurks another maternal figure: the witch. If the stepmother is the Bad Mother, the witch is the Very Bad Mother Indeed. The delicious gingerbread house, the supper of ‘milk and pancakes with sugar, and apples and nuts’ and the ‘two lovely little beds with white sheets’ appear to be the attributes of a kind and loving parent, but alas, by the next day the old woman has locked Hansel in a cage to fatten him up and forced Gretel to be her skivvy.
The tale very clearly links hunger for physical food with hunger for maternal love. When Hansel and Gretel devour the gingerbread house, they’re not simply being gluttonous but desperately attempting to satisfy their craving for their mother. As Bruno Bettelheim points out in connexion with this story (in The Uses of Enchantment), the gingerbread house is in one sense the mother’s body, which literally feeds the infant. But the inhabitant of the house plans to feed upon the children. In this respect she is like the fairies I am reading about in Diane Purkiss’ Troublesome Things, fairies descended from Sumerian child-eating demons and lamia, who drain babies of life even as they appear to suckle them. In my family, adults – including me – often talk about ‘eating’ children: ‘I could gobble you up!’ But we’re not Sumerian child-eating demons: it’s a way of expressing our love. And this seems not freakishness on our part, but something quite common; well, between mothers and babies at least. And Maurice Sendak described his aunts and uncles as saying they would ‘eat him up’ when they visited him (they inspired the wild things in Where the Wild Things Are). And in your family?
Certain motifs in the story are connected by their colour, white: Hansel’s little cat and dove, who may be sitting on the roof; the shining white pebbles and the moon by whose light Hansel gathers them; the duck who carries the children safely over the water. These are the children’s helpers. But in the deceitful world of the gingerbread house, the milk and the white sheets on the little beds are part of the illusion of aid.
Despite its cheery themes of attempted infanticide and cannibalism, if any of the Grimms’ tales can be said to be for children, it is ‘Hansel and Gretel’. The children triumph through their own resourcefulness, they begin as powerless and abused but end the tale in control of their destinies and bringing home wealth to sustain the family. And they push their ‘mother’ into the oven! What could be more enjoyable for a child than vicariously doing that?
(Albert Weisgerber, illustration from Kinder- und Hausmärchen nach Sammlung der Brüder Grimm, retold by Hans Fraungruber; Wien & Leipzig: Martin Gerlach & Co., ca. 1900, from here; you can see the whole book here)
Illustration in text: Paul Meyerheim, illustration from Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, Gütersloh: C. Bertelsmann, 1893; from here)
There was once a series of posts about the Grimms’ fairy tales, which fell asleep for a hundred years. A thicket of thorns grew up around it, and those few who remembered it at all supposed that it had succumbed to the writer’s usual inability to persevere with anything. Then suddenly, one cold winter’s day, the darkest of the year, a new post appeared, like a lovely rose blossoming. Hem.
All was not quite as it had been, however. The writer had belatedly noticed that all the fairy tales had already been posted on the internets, and so she decided that rather than hammer out her turgid retellings she would direct readers to a proper translation of the Grimms’ version, where they could enjoy the stories in their proper forms.
So, ‘The Three Little Men in the Forest’ can be read here, if you don’t have a copy or know it already.
(Arthur Rackham, ‘What did she find there but real ripe strawberries’, illustration for Little Brother and Little Sister and Other Tales by the Brothers Grimm, London: Constable and Co., Ltd., 1917; found here)
It’s a cheerful welding together of two sorts of story, but one that I have found curious. The first is called ‘the kind and unkind girls’ trope, and in it a good, kind girl is sent to do a menial, unpleasant or even dangerous task, meets a magical being to whom she is courteous and obliging, and receives a wonderful reward; her bad stepsister is then sent on the same errand, but because she is rude and horrible what she receives is suitably unpleasant and punitive. A famous example of this trope is in ‘Mother Holle’.
In ‘The Three Little Men in the Forest’, the wicked stepmother orders the good girl to wear a paper dress and go out into the snow to gather strawberries; far from perishing in the cold, she finds a cottage, shares her one piece of bread with the three little ‘elf-men’ who inhabit it, and clears the snow from their path good-humouredly. Consequently, she is bestowed with the gifts of growing more beautiful every day, having gold coins fall from her mouth when she speaks and marrying a king. The bad stepsister, on the other hand, is sent out in furs and with ‘buttered bread and cake’ to eat, but is so selfish and rude that the three little men punish her with the mirror of the good girl’s rewards: she will grow uglier each day, toads will leap from her mouth whenever she speaks and she will die a miserable death.
This trope functions in several ways: by splitting the young girl character into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ it can act as a rather clumsy reinforcement of ‘approved’ female qualities – obedience, kindness, generosity, diligence – contrasted with the terrible fate which might befall a lazy, saucy, bad-tempered wench. In particular, it highlights the virtue of obedience, which I would argue is the good girl’s main characteristic in the story: she is obedient to father, stepmother, little men and husband, in turn. The good sister’s virtues are rewarded with those features which make a girl most attractive in the marriage market: physical beauty (here reflecting inner beauty) and wealth – and with those gold coins falling from her lips, who will listen to what she actually says?
The girl character ‘splits’ again during the second trope, that of ‘the false bride’, which we saw in ‘Little Brother and Little Sister’. Interpreted like this, the girl’s identity is particularly unstable in this tale. Again, the revenant bride is rescued just in time, and in the first edition of the tales, so Joyce Crick tells us in the Oxford University Press edition, the wicked stepmother and stepsister were also left in the forest to be eaten by wild animals. The barrel of nails was added later, and Wilhelm Grimm justified it as having been described in a thirteenth-century chronicle from the Netherlands. The wicked stepmother inadvertently chooses it as her and her daughter’s punishment in reply to the king’s trick question at the end of the story. Why did Wilhelm change it? To distinguish it slightly from ‘Little Brother and Little Sister’?
(Charles Folkard, illustration, ‘The Three Little Men in the Snow’, illustration for Grimms’ Fairy Tales, London: A&C Black, 1911; from here)
It is of course the details which define this story and elevate it above a simple ‘type’: the paper dress, the strawberries in the snow, swilling the yarn in the icy river. It’s always winter before the king finds the good girl and marries her. The forest is the place of magic and testing, as in so many of the Grimms’ tales; for the good girl it is a refuge, benign; for the wicked, it is threatening, where beasts may devour them. But I think my favourite part is right at the beginning (from the OUP edition):
There was once a man whose wife had died, and there was a woman whose husband had died. Now the man had a daughter, and so did the woman. The girls knew each other, and one day they went for a walk together and afterwards went to the woman’s house. Then the woman said to the man’s daughter: ‘Listen, tell your father I would like to marry him, and when I do you shall wash yourself every morning in milk, and have wine to drink, but my own daughter shall have water to wash in and water to drink.’ The girl went home and told her father what the woman had said. The man said: ‘What shall I do? Marriage is a pleasure, but it’s also a torment.’ At last, because he couldn’t come to a decision, he took off his boot and said: ‘Take it up to the attic, hang it on the big nail there, and pour water into it. If it holds the water, I’ll take a wife again, but if the water runs out, I won’t.’ The girl did as she was told; but the water shrank the hole, and the boot was full to the brim. She told her father what had happened. Then he went upstairs himself, and when he saw that it was so he went to the widow and wooed her, and the wedding took place.
Irresponsible fathers are a feature of the Grimms’ tales, but this one is intriguing. He takes the widow’s promises of kindness to his daughter on trust, but not his own child’s observation of the boot: this he corroborates himself. He uses a boot with a hole in it – did he know this, and so really had decided not to marry? Or was he unaware of it, assuming the boot would probably hold the water, and thus quite keen on the widow? In either case, what did he hope to prove with the boot? Or again, was he, in a story where most of the characters lack any great cunning, incredibly stupid? And why in the attic, does he associate that with the head, the brain?
I’m not sure I’ve written all I want to write about this, or finished thinking about it. But life is short, so I’ll post it anyway. What do you make of it?
Next time: ‘Hansel and Gretel’.
(Black-and-white illustration by Kay Nielsen in Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1925; found here)